Harm reduction and Human Rights (both) for Sex Work Plenary

I know some activists going to a harm-reduction conference called CLAT5 in Porto (Portugal) in the near future, where I’m to give a plenary talk at the opening session. The description of the conference in English: ‘Our aims for this event are to rethink – in a transnational way – the future of harm reduction and to question the actual (current) consensus about its policies and practices of intervention. For this we will stimulate a critical discussion based on the concepts and practices linked with harm reduction and also bring to the debate issues of human rights, South-North and East-West inequalities and social dialogue among key actors.’

I understand some people in the harm-reduction field don’t think sex work should be there and that it was a close thing whether any plenary speaker would address it. And I know that some people don’t like harm reduction as a way of thinking about sex work.  To put this in context, the conference has 6 streams:

1 Drugs on the Street
2 Parties: Pleasures Management and Risks Reduction
3 Alcohol and Harm Reduction
4 Sex: Pleasures, Risks and Sexual Work
5 Other addictions
6 Human Rights and Penal Control

There are five panels addressing sex/sex work and several good activists will speak, mixed with outreach/academic folk. Sex-work activists have gone to other harm-reduction conferences, of course, but here I’m to talk about human rights AND harm reduction, which feels challenging because they are both theoretical frames for thinking about the issues. And since globalisation is another of the event’s keywords I can talk about trafficking and anti-demand politics as well, but I’d rather not just spout a string of platitudes. Any ideas or tips from past experience?

Thanks, Laura

Laura María Agustín  Border Thinking

21 Responses

  1. Well I for one don’t believe in harm reduction as it stands currently, as a viable means to being us the right to negotiate for our labor or our work conditions.
    It’s a waist of money and time. Wonder were all the data is about the ‘outcomes’?
    The diversion program locally is calling itself ‘harm reduction’.
    So arresting us for our own good and coercing us through pain of criminal prosecution into re-education programs is the best that can be done?
    Crazy.
    Who’s going to reduce the harm from that?
    Another state sponsored bullshit?
    And the ‘health based harm reduction’…
    I don’t like that we’re subjected to 20 minutes of drug addiction screening in order to get and std screening.
    I don’t like having sit through a 30 minute interrogation intake in order to get an sdt test.
    And that’s what we have at the saint james infirmary.
    So harm reduction as it stands on the ground isn’t a viable delivery system for rights to sex trade workers.

    Additionally, those ‘heath based rights’ invaders who propose and implement this means of ‘harm reduction’ never go so far as to enable, provide, direct or indirect any actual ‘rights’, ‘human’ or otherwise for those who are actually working in the sex industry besides saying the words.
    It’s great that the concept is out there, but to go beyond words to actual actions that are actual worker generated is were we all have to be.
    And I don’t see any of these non profit ‘harm reducers’ holding that kind of vision as it would possibly put them outta work in their occupation as ‘harm reducers’.
    I mean look at the legalization of prostitution in Germany where the police were the keepers of the std results as they were also the testers.
    They complained because mandatory testing was no longer required for the workers so they, the police no longer had access to our pussys to perform their fetish medical tests on, and had to find other work for themselves.
    I believe the ‘health center sex workers rights harm reductionism’ to be in the same position and just don’t want to admit their dependence on criminalization which channels workers into their fake ‘rights based’ approach.

  2. I believe that both approaches have to be there. Low threshold harm reduction that provides services to anyone who needs them and a rights based approach. Until the oppression of sex workers has been eradicated there have to be people that provide needed services to deal with the effects on sex workers of the oppression. Unfortunately that often times means harm reduction/risk minimization. I believe one of the keys to success in harm reduction is finding a hybrid ideology that merges harm reduction with end oppression rights based movements.

  3. I always thought that “harm reduction” includes decriminalization. But it seems that some are trying to co-opt the term “harm reduction” into providing services to sex workers without giving them their rights, as Maxine indicates.

    Yes, this will cause a whole industry of “harm reducers” to crop up. Next thing you know, SAGE in San Francisco will start calling themselves a “harm reduction program”.

    The definition of “harm reduction” should always include decrim and human rights as well as services.

  4. SAGE has at various times called themselves harm reduction, at other times they have dismissed it as collaborating with the alleged pro trafficking lobby.

    They were wildly against it when I introduced harm reduction to what was then Project Prosper/Escape. That was a huge part of my blowout with the rad fems and their campaign to eliminate me as an activist.

  5. when Laura says,”I understand some people in the harm-reduction field don’t think sex work should be there”, I wonder what this means. Why don’t they want us there? Is it because they don’t see that criminalized workers could ever really have a choice about choosing harm reduction because we’re always under the threat of criminalization, deportation, lose of children…?

  6. The harm reduction viewpoint I was trained in was that there wasn’t a sense that anyone should or shouldn’t be there. Instead that each person was taken at face value for where they were at and harm reduction services provided how the person requiring services needed them. If they need condoms, they get condoms, if they need housing assistance, they get housing assistance, etc. The person needing the services is the expert in their own life and determines their own politics.

    This was one of the major things that radical feminists went nuts over when I endorsed this view. Their (radical feminists) view was that my primary responsibility should be to educate the person requesting services prior to giving it to them. I agreed with the people that trained me who advocated differently than radical feminists. Receiving harm reduction services shouldn’t require any political education. Requiring political education for services is exploitation and manipulation of the person needing services. It, to me, is fucked up if we tell someone needing services they have to be indoctrinated into any view in order to get what they need unless that person wants the political. To me harm reduction is like going to the pharmacist. I want my prescriptions filled, I want information on my prescriptions and advice on them. I don’t want the pharmacist to lecture me politically regardless of their politics. To place political in the harm reduction service provision creates an artificial hierarchy that doesn’t belong there.

  7. SAGE betrays harm reduction because they place their poltical perspective into the mix of getting services. They are essentially saying you can get what you need from us if you agree to our re-education. That isn’t harm reduction it is bait and switch. SAGE is misusing harm reduction for their own ends.

  8. Speaking of pharmacists, I’m visiting a place where you have to ask the pharmacy for the condoms as they are located behind the counter and they only have a few boxes behind the counter.
    I guess, that’s someone’s idea of ‘harm reduction’?

  9. But no that isn’t. That is the opposite Maxine. The condoms being available to anyone who need them would be harm reduction. Having them behind the counter is having to ask the pharmacist for them is a political attachment which doesn’t belong in true harm reduction ideology.

  10. This is all interesting and what I need, so thank you to everyone. For me the term harm reduction has been around for many years in the back of my mind as a vague notion related to the fact that some activities are thought wrong and get prohibitied but then prohibition doesn’t work so ideas that one could at least limit damages comes in. I think, maybe, that some theorists would like to keep the harm-reduction field more specifically focused on drug use. Alochol and ‘other addictions’ form streams at this event, which opens harm reduction up to the idea of addiction itself.

    My comments always go into moderation on this site so could take some time to show up. Can anyone fix that?

  11. Umm.. maybe the condoms are behind the counter (like cigarettes) because they get ripped off frequently?

    Harm reduction practice was doomed years ago by a funding system that demands measurable results. We couldn’t figure out how to prove harm reduction worked to people who didn’t much like the idea anyhow. You can’t measure HIV infections that don’t occur; you can’t measure users who don’t OD; you can’t measure rapes and murders that don’t happen. As I was told very shortly before I left social work, “we meet clients where they’re at, but we don’t leave them there.” Regardless of what the “client” wanted, of course.

  12. I’m on this group’s list and I think they’ve got it going on on and on.http://www.champnetwork.org/

    Sign their petition
    http://www.thebody.com/content/art51818.html?ic=700101

    They’re working on our issues and they’re worth coalition building with.

    Here’s a bit about the condom hiding:

    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2009/06/15/protection-a-lock-box-cvs-puts-condoms-out-reach

  13. Well, my harm reduction methods are standing up for my rights in my work place, and in my personal life. I educate myself constantly about what the bosses are up to oppress our class. (yesterday, a client gave information about how he was arrested by the FBI who was running a prostitution sting operation last summer) and take pro active stances to out maneuver them to minimize the effects of criminalization on myself, my family, my community.
    We can measure the cost of criminalization on the community can’t we? It was the corruption of the police department that finally moved New South Wales to decrim. But I don’t know if that would work here in America as the public is so jaded especially after 8 years of being lied to by the government and having words like ‘harm reduction’ redefined under the religious nazi regime.

  14. I think there are a lot of important roles to play in the fight against oppression. There are 100,000 protesters in Tehran, Iran. There are also people there who unfortunately rather than protest, are having to stay behind to treat the injured protesters, harmed or killed by the police. There are attorneys to try to fight for the rights of the protesters that have been arrested. They all have roles to play that are important.

    Our movement has many different people playing different roles and it has to be that way. We have to remember what and who we are opposing, which is oppressors and oppression and not expend resources we don’t have on evaluating who is the XXXX role in the fight. The battle is against oppression, not for who is the best activist or has the best ideas in our movement.

    There are many paths to achieving goals. But we have to keep going on the path to get there. If we stop and fight with each other on whose path is best none of us get there.

  15. My experience is that the abolitionist based movement despises harm reduction. Holy shit, it was my support for harm reduction that lead to my very contentious split with the anti’s and government funding. I got death threats from people in the anti movement for speaking gigs endorsing harm reduction. My experience was defintely different in the sense that the Bush Administration/radical feminist/anti movement sees harm reduction as a huge evil to eliminate.

  16. I think that’s right, abolitionists don’t like harm reduction because it ‘accepts’ that something they don’t like is going on. The idea of Zero Tolerance is that you have decided some activity is wrong, then you prohibit it, after which you don’t want to admit that people haven’t stopped doing it. And projects to help these wrongdoers feel better are just upsetting.

  17. OMG, Laura, my experience with this is that the abolitionists go farther with this than that. They delve into their whole harm reduction conspiracy theory assome politically motivated collaboration to enslave women that is funded openly and covertly by the “pro trafficking lobby” with the second goal of destroying feminism. The term harm reduction is forbidden at many of their conferences with the Department of Justice. It goes to absurd levels that often times are so outlandish they become almost tragically funny

  18. ok jill, you would know about the US context and i wouldn’t. in sweden, harm reduction projects vis-a-vis drugs and prostitution is practically non-existent for a different reason: because using drugs and buying sex are illegal acts, helping or facilitating anything to do with those acts is considered wrong. the acts have to be eradicated. there are small initiatives and there is a resistance movement, but the scale is small because the zero tolerance policy is so stalwart.

  19. SAGE calls itself a “harm reduction” program and Donna Hughes supports the “pro democracy” demonstrations in Iran.

  20. Laura,

    I didn’t mean to undermine your point. I totally agree with you! I only meant to add to what you had said in illustrating the further extremes against it by abolitionists in the US.

    Lisa,

    Donna is back to being the expert on the Middle East again! I”m not sure she could find Iran on the map or realizes that Arabic is not the primary language in Iran. Nonetheless if she says she is an expert on democracy in the Middle East it must be true! She probably sees herself as the Neda Soltan of both

  21. no, no, i didn’t misunderstand you, jill. i want to be told how these things are perceived in different settings, and i hadn’t realised that the hostility was so great amongst that particular group of fundamentalist feminists. probably there are such outside the US as well, perhaps all members of catw feel like that.

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